People have often asked me to describe the difference between diversity and inclusion. Many people use the analogy of diversity being different varieties of fruit and inclusion being fruit salad. Maybe what makes me different is that I don’t agree with this description.
As a business owner and educator I know, first hand, that simply throwing people together in a shared space does not produce an inclusive environment.
I never intentionally set out to employ people with disabilities. When my fiancé and I established Co-Ed Cafe in Lower Hutt it was intended to be a place where people could ask questions about their daily brew without the snob factor that is often associated with specialty coffee. When I was asked to run one of our secondary school barista courses for a class of profoundly Deaf students, we jumped at the opportunity for a couple of reasons. Firstly we were, and still are, a small, family-owned and operated business and every revenue stream will always be explored. Secondly, I didn’t know that most people wouldn’t have done it.
Having worked in the international coffee industry for over 20 years, I had always had a steadfast belief that coffee was truly inclusive, that one place where people connect and where wealth, religion and ability were irrelevant. It wasn’t until that day in September 2014 that I realised that the industry wasn’t as accessible as I had thought.
In the beginning of 2015 we employed Julz, an amazing young woman with a cochlear implant. I had no idea what that even meant. Julz is profoundly deaf but reads lips and is verbal. Having met her a number of times previously, as a customer of the cafe, I had no idea she was deaf so was blown away when she explained how she had learned to talk as a child and the struggles she had faced, as a highly competent woman, to be able to progress in a professional setting due to the barriers other people imposed on her. She had never learnt to sign so it was incredible to attend New Zealand Sign Language classes with her and embark on our NZSL journey together (although she is much better than I am!).
I often explain that we use coffee as a catalyst to teach people about inclusion and to affect change on society, but Julz has been a big part of this too. Working in close proximity with someone who processes information in a different way has made me appreciate how bad we are at being customers. Mobile phones cover our mouths and lack of eye contact means we often look away when placing our orders. For someone who relies on reading lips this can create confusion.
At Co-Ed not only do we work to establish a working environment where everyone can shine and we can provide the best level of service to everyone, but we also aim to educate the public on how to be good customers.
In order to do this we have worked to take the fear out of ignorance. And I don’t mean this in a derogatory way, but we are constantly made to feel scared to get things wrong in case we offend people. But if we don’t know, we don’t know. Julz is a perfect example. She knows she is Deaf, I know she’s Deaf, but when new customers visit the cafe they don’t. The team pick up on little things, like the tone of someone’s voice, that Julz doesn’t hear, and sometimes have to step in to help process the order. It is really easy, as someone who cares for Julz, to mirror someone’s tone in response but this just continues the cycle of fear. Instead we like to make light of it. I’m always asking Julz, “you Deaf or something?” to which she replies, always with a smile and chuckle “yes, actually I am”.
The look on people’s faces shows the shock horror that they may have offended her, but we just laugh it off. Reassure them that it happens all the time, mainly because Julz is amazing and kinda super human! (Please note that what she lacks in hearing she makes up for in kickass coffee-making skills, exceptional customer service and a wicked sense of humour!)
It’s only my thoughts, but in order to create accessible, inclusive business – and society – we need to remove fear and get to understand our differences in order to find our similarities. Coffee allows this to happen in all parts of the process, from seed to cup.
We now have two cafes, Co-Ed on Kings and Co’Ed on Queens, and out of a workforce of 14 we have eight people who identify with disability, either physical or neurological. We also have established Coffee Educators where we conduct accessible hospitality training and support people into employment. I am proud to say that it is not just the team with disability that make this possible, but the extended team around them, who change their way of working, learn sign language and support the business’ vision of an inclusive environment for customers and staff alike.
This is where my personal thoughts on inclusion and diversity come in. Diversity is like a musical instrument. Think Clapton, Hendrix and BB King, they all play the guitar but they use it to share the most personal and unique aspects of themselves. But inclusion is like an orchestra, where you need to be more aware of those around you. If one section of the orchestra falls behind, all the musicians, with the guidance of the conductor, slow down, find the beat, ensure they are all together and move forward as one.
Inclusion requires us to be more in tune with each other.
It has been a long, hard road (but I’ll save that for another time) but every day we see that we are making a difference and being the change.
Claire ‘the coffee fairy’ Matheson is the Founder and Boss Lady of Coffee Educators and Able Coffee Collaborative in Lower Hutt, New Zealand.
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